CHICAGO — With the echo of African drums, Fairfield Avenue comes alive.
Men, women and children, drawn to their front porches by the pulsing beat, witness an impromptu parade led by 60-year-old Hasan Smith. A long line of well-wishers follows him to the home that he helped rebuild — the first home he has ever owned.
They all wave, and celebrate another chapter in the rebirth of a
Today, the area known as Chicago Lawn is a place where kids ride bikes, where revelers gather for block parties and street dances, where shoppers frequent a farmers’ market and a resale shop in a once-vacant storefront and where
Though still a work in progress, this is not the South Side of Chicago of violent repute — shootings, gangs, forgotten main streets and residential blocks plagued with boarded-up houses and apartment buildings.
Chicago Lawn was once all that; its streets were littered with abandoned homes, especially after the 2008 mortgage crisis took hold. “In some blocks, it looked like a war zone,” said the Rev. Anthony Pizzo, then a priest at St. Rita of Cascia Catholic church, a rare
But then, a feisty core of residents, the Smiths included, banded together to save this place.
They are doing so with an unexpected mix of people in an often-segregated city, with
“I told myself when I get there, I’m going to be running, moving forward,” said Smith, who came to Chicago Lawn in 2006 in search of a second chance. Many others are doing the same, moving into rehabbed bungalows and apartments.
And sparking nothing short of a Chicago Lawn renaissance.
The comeback is a particularly stunning feat when you consider the
Decades earlier, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. marched into what was then an ethnic-white
“I have never seen — even in Mississippi and Alabama — mobs as hostile and as hate-filled as I’ve seen here in Chicago,” he would say.
The racial makeup of the
Jose and Maria Mena bought a three-unit brick apartment building in 1990 to share with their extended family, including Mena’s mom and a disabled sister. Jose, now 60, came from Mexico as a teen to pick strawberries in California, then made his way to Chicago to work in a factory that produced ice cube trays and other plastic goods. He met wife Maria there. Both learned English, earned their GEDs and became citizens after being granted amnesty by the Reagan administration.
But because of language barriers or confusion over loan terms, such as adjustable rates, many were perched precariously on the edge of the housing bubble when it burst in 2008. Some with lower credit scores also had received subprime loans with high interest rates. Before the collapse, block after block of storefronts were filled with mortgage lenders and real estate offices that mostly disappeared after.
“They trick the people. They just told what’s convenient for them,” said Jose, who had
They’d also never been very politically active. But when Pizzo and organizers from a
A few weeks later, the group scheduled a meeting with Bank of America officials at St. Rita’s — some inside, asking the bank to work with those in danger of foreclosure, while others prayed outside on the church steps.
“It was the first time people came out with no shame to share testimonies,” said Imelda Salazar, a Guatemalan immigrant who became a
Ultimately, they worked with the banks through repayment, credit
When Hasan Smith first arrived in Chicago Lawn, he moved into a halfway house apartment above the
Still, after spending “27 years, three months and six days” locked away, it was a strange and wonderful feeling to walk into this three-bedroom apartment that belonged to the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, or IMAN.
Smith had become Muslim in prison. He was drawn to the teachings of the
Growing up in the Stateway Gardens projects, he had chosen gang life because he felt he had few options. He became, by his own regretful admission, a tyrant. But at home, he was still the baby-faced boy who dutifully did his chores and homework, even as a teen. His parents were strict but powerless against the outside forces. “All this stuff you’re doing in the streets, you can’t bring it in here,” he remembers them saying. “If you get money, we don’t want it.”
Rafi Peterson could relate. Now a well-known figure in Chicago Lawn who works both with SWOP and IMAN, he was what he called a “criminal’s criminal” as a young man, stealing from drug dealers and pimps. He too grew up in the projects and converted to Islam in prison. The two men, who would become lifelong friends, met when a physician Smith was working for introduced them.
“Come on. Bring your stuff,” Peterson told Smith, who went on to become the first graduate of IMAN’s reentry program, which teaches former prisoners work and life skills.
Smith got a job at a printing company and worked with Peterson as a violence interrupter, using their knowledge as former gang members to diffuse conflict.
It wasn’t easy. As more homes vacated, crime in Chicago Lawn grew rampant. At one point, IMAN went to court to go after gang members who were squatting in an abandoned apartment building, Peterson said. A young woman who’d been raped was found next to the building.
One year before the housing crash, Peterson purchased his own brick bungalow a couple blocks away. He resisted painting over gang graffiti inside a bedroom closet. More than a decade later, the initials were still there — S.D. for Satan Disciples, one of a few gangs that had splintered and persisted, even when their leaders were taken down.
“I wanted to remember what we came from,” he explained.
As they took a stand,
By 2012, there were at least 665 abandoned homes and apartment buildings in Chicago Lawn, counted by staff and volunteers at SWOP. The boarded-up homes were most obvious. Others were given away by their stuffed mailboxes, overgrown lawns and no signs of life for days on end, except perhaps the odd feral cat and other critters that squeezed in through broken windows.
They would, they decided, raise funds and buy up corner properties to spark redevelopment. They would, as they put it, “reclaim” the
They knew this was not the South Side story people expected, and that only fueled their fire.
They started with a rally, passing the hat as attendees threw in $5, $10, maybe $20. MacArthur pledged $500,000.
Eventually, Lisa Madigan, then Illinois attorney general, agreed to tour the
At another rally, Pizzo — the priest, known for his ability to stir a crowd and the silver crew cut that often leads people to mistake him for a cop — asked then Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn for $5 million. When Quinn politely said he’d consider it, Pizzo’s peers sent him back up to press the governor for a firm commitment.
Pizzo’s throat tightened. “You know, I’m used to preaching, right?” he said. “I can ask for things, but it was never something like this before.”
The coalition walked away that night with Quinn’s promise for $4 million and tax credits, giving the
They began with a 20-block area in Chicago Lawn, among the hardest hit with 93 vacant buildings. The first project — a 13-unit brick apartment building — was finished in 2016.
Jamillah Rashad, now 36, and her two children were among the first to move into one of the apartments in a
“I never sat still enough to feel like I existed in a place long enough,” said Rashad, who works in early childhood education. This felt like home.
By last year, all but eight of the original 93 properties in that first target area had been rehabbed — some by SWOP, some by IMAN and others by private developers.
Fundraising to tackle the remainder of the
Hasan Smith met his wife Mary at a grocery store five years ago. Drawn to her talkative, upbeat nature, Smith told his friend, “That’s gonna be my girl.” Unlike him, she was a Christian, but their values aligned. He brought her to the
“You can be a visitor and not see everything,” Mary said recently. “So I had to see for myself.”
She noticed the security guards posted along 63rd Street storefronts. She occasionally heard gunfire in the distance. But she saw the potential — in this place and in him.
So after they married, they moved into an apartment in Chicago Lawn in early 2016 and eventually spotted a vacant home down the street that they both liked. Smith had earned his general contractor’s license, and last winter, he and a new cohort of young recruits began the work of gutting and rebuilding it.
One of them was Edward “Tron” Borden Jr. “In my world, Hasan is somebody,” the 30-year-old young man, still with gang ties, said one day after helping attach drywall to a ceiling and noticing Smith’s fading gang tattoos.
Summer temperatures brought a flurry of other activity to the
Of the original 665 vacant homes and apartment buildings, well over 300 are now filled, with more to come.
That success prompted Illinois lawmakers this summer to approve an additional $12 million for more rehabs — and another $3 million to bring this model to North Lawndale, a West Side
Nick Brunick, an attorney and leader with United Power, is among those who’ve spent countless hours lobbying for funding. A resident of suburban Oak Park, 12 miles yet worlds away from Chicago Lawn in many ways, he also has helped bring white supporters to the
The newly elected mayor of Chicago, Lori Lightfoot, has taken notice. The next major goal, Brunick said, is to rebuild “1,000 homes on the South Side and 1,000 homes on the West Side.” He said an affiliate organization in New York City has similar aspirations, also “driven by local families and institutions.” As he sees it, their successful formula could help struggling
As Lightfoot prepared to meet this fall with a gathering of hundreds of families and
Hasan, a man of few words, insisted that his wife speak first as they stood in front of their new home. She thanked their friends and read a Bible verse.
That inspired Hasan, who told the group that his work was a “chance to give back to the community that I once destroyed.”
Days later, he was singing with a band assembled in their backyard as the sun set. A grandson played nearby.
“It’s been a long time coming,” he crooned. “But I know a change gonna come, yes it will.”
This was just as he’d pictured it.
Martha Irvine, an AP national writer and visual journalist, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at http://twitter.com/irvineap
Martha Irvine, The Associated Press